I collected Barbies and built walls around myself, boxes like the Dreamhouse that took up so much space in my room, plastic walls with sharp corners, fixed surroundings, flowers cut to look like the ones growing by my next-door neighbor’s mailbox but so much less fragile.
So much less fragile.
The architecture of plastic promised that: a permanence and a relief from the softness, the easy-to-hurtness of being a girl and then a woman, I thought. Plastic offered protection (lessons learned later about latex gloves, condoms, barriers designed to stop fluidity—a lovely thought when it comes to blood, to semen). Plastic prevented me from feeling… anything.
This is what I learned when I read Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs: there is power in abnegating femaleness, in living between body and machine. At the same time, we experience technological waste—that’s something that ecofeminists addressed before Haraway in their paralleling of the female body with the natural world, and that even in a post-human dystopia, structure is ineluctable.
I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joanand Kaethe Schwehn’s The Rending and the Nestaround the same time one of my friends introduced me to plarn. This coincidental juxtaposition, happening as it did during Plastic-Free July and my second viewing of A Plastic Ocean, has made me think about what I have done to my body, what I have done to the earth, and what I make, how it makes and unmakes me, strips of plastic bags pulled tight by plastic needles and sloping loosely from a ball I’ve made over my fingers.
I hate it.
I am making bags out of bags, a metaphor and a reality that is as tangled as the piles of trash I’m pulling together, weaving together to keep myself from falling apart at the seams, to keep my tiny fragment of the world from being filled up with so much waste.
Working with plastic has taught me how frail the substance feels when it has outlived its first use, and I feel sorry for it, sorry for this flimsy substance that falls apart in my hands. I try to make it sturdy, even as I curse it for making me feel dirty (perhaps I should have rinsed off the CAUTION DANGER tape I tore off a cone by a construction site before I began to touch it, finger to needle), culpable for all the things I have thrown away.
The things I have thrown away. The times I have thrown myself away—on men, on meaning, and on meaninglessness. I have been an object, the object, which makes it hard to object. I have been treated as disposable. I have treated myself as disposable, I think, as I imagine the number of wastebaskets by body has filled with tampon applicators, bottled water, Ziploc bags, lip-gloss tubes, mascara wands, plastic hangers from clothes I ended up not wanting.
It is so easy to consume and be consumed in ways that surreptitiously make us feel unworthy, as if we’re made of the stuff that fills so many trash cans and recycling bins. We live in a culture where we want women to look like plastic, to feel like plastic—and to be as easy to dispose of as plastic. Maybe that’s why, as much as I hate it, I’m drawn to the fact that it outlives us, chokes out everything we have stereotypically labeled feminine: water, birth. This so-called disposable product is destined to outlive us.
My disposable body, the body I keep trying to throw away (babies and bathwater seems like the appropriate phrase here) keeps returning. I choke on it like a sea otter or baby seagull stuffed full of trash bags. I choke on it and still float. I am learning that what we view as disposable is in fact not something we should toss without thinking into a receptacle, not something we should put off to the side and pretend never existed. It’s the stuff that matters.
Each ball of plarn, each broken Barbie, and every vinyl record I’d rather melt down than hear out has a story. For example:
The edges of my femaleness have hardened. The landfill of my living room is a series of landmines that I stitch together to create something capable of withstanding the right pressures to tell a different version of sustainability that defies fictions and fibers. I hope.
Plastic is a gift, and I have made the most of Barbies, vinyl albums, and plastic bags by remaking them, lending them a permanence and a new intelligibility.
Plastic is a prison. It ties me to social constructions and reminds me with every stitch how many molecules are fighting for meaning, for space—and how much ends up floating away, causing destruction, rendering itself obsolete and yet unavoidable.
When plastic moves down my arms and I grip it, I am part woman, part object, always.
The domestic depends on it. Grocery bags, Ziploc bags, microwavable containers. It’s no wonder that when people try to go Zero Waste, they have to start in the kitchen and work their way out. How often do we work our way out?
What I make unmakes a small story of destruction. What I use helps, I tell myself, create a tiny bit more space for life in the ocean, for life in our most vulnerable communities, the ones right on the edge of landfills.
On my arms, the plastic feels toxic, not like the living fibers I love to knit.
With it, I am never sure if I am reproducing artifice or unmaking it (e.g., when I told a man that I was making a bag from bags, he perhaps predictably laughed, even though it wasn’t intended to be funny).
We give birth to stories that are objects, too—stories and objects we do not always want to touch and to touch us.
Knitting with plastic has its own kinesthetics. My mother could hear me knitting when I talked to her on the phone. There is, in that, a sensory power and a shifting away from the quietude of crafts toward something more radical.
Last spring, the Slims River in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park abruptly disappeared over the course of four days. A team of geologists and geoscientists that had been monitoring the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, the source of the Slims River, arrived to find dust where the mighty glacial river (one-third of a mile across at its widest places) had tumbled boulders and tree trunks just days before. Because the Alsek River, the glacier’s other outlet, had swelled to sixty times its usual flow, the field team concluded that the glacier’s intense, rapid melt had forced all of the water into the Alsek and away from the Slims.
This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.
What matters: the Slims River is gone. What once roared toward the Kluane River and into the Yukon to the Bering Sea now spills south into the Alsek toward the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of river in that once green valley, the wind whips up dust storms; the air is oddly silent.
I walked along the Slims River twice. Once, in June of 2005, my friend Lia and I backpacked up the trail that followed its west side. We intended to hike all the way to the toe of the great Kaskawulsh, but the first day — a grueling fourteen miles that included an intense crossing of the swollen Bullion Creek, a grizzly bear encounter on the edge of some willows, a trudge through sticky glacial silt, and a scramble up and down a trail the park ranger at the Sheep Mountain information center had described as “more or less flat” — had nearly defeated us. We set up camp at Canada Creek, in full view of the massive river of ice, and poured vodka into orange Tang for supper. In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River? It roared, gray-blue milk, just yards to the east of our tent all night, as impassable as the steep walls of rock on either side of the valley. It roared, and there was never darkness; the sun set close to midnight; we could still see to trace each other’s faces in the early hours of the morning.
Eight years later, in June of 2013, I backpacked alone along the same trail on the west side of the Slims River, climbing up Sheep Mountain to a place where I could trace the braided curve of the Slims in the vast valley up toward the place where we had camped in view of the Kaskawulsh. In my two hands, I clutched a plastic Ziplock bag that contained some of Lia’s ashes. Not just ashes. Bits of bone. A piece of metal. When I sank my fingers into the bag, the white dust clung to my skin. I concentrated on the flowers that bobbed their heads in the wind on that rocky edge: the purple Ogilvie Spring Beauty, the yellow Maclean’s Goldenweed. Beyond, the Kaskawulsh curved in its frozen S. I knew the glacier moved, that it retreated daily, melting fast into the Slims and the Alsek, but I could not observe that action. I could barely breathe. When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils. Later, I crouched on the shore of the Slims, sinking my hands into the gray-blue milk. Ash swirled with silt, turning my hands to clay.
Sometime after Lia died, I wrote: The Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park moves forward in the summer at an average velocity of 16,380 meters per day. The current glacier reached to its furthest extent in the early 1700s, when Bach wrote cantatas, Louis XIV of Spain ceded world domination to Great Britain, the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies increased, hostilities between Native American tribes and the colonists increased, and the Persian army sacked Delhi. Scientists know the age of the Kaskawulsh because they have conducted dendroglaciological studies. “Dendr-” = “related to trees.” Ring series from white spruce trees divulge the advances and retreats because the Kaskawulsh sheared, tilted, killed. Velocity, simultaneous events, exact day and time. Shatter the ice, break the rock. I want to know what is inside.
The violence of the glacier fascinated me with its unpredictable advances and retreats, its ancient insistence on destruction. On the alpine ridge of Sheep Mountain that day in 2013, I stood feeling insignificant, aware of the mountains that rose ancient on all sides of me, of the glacier that told me time does not move as human beings believe it does. What is eight years, after all? I wondered, briefly, if the mud flats and the meadows purple and white with Alaska cotton remembered our footsteps, but I barely considered the braided river.
But now, when I visit that place again, I’ll find a valley of dust, sculpted by wind into phantom shapes, as if the Slims River never was.
This is what a death is like for those who continue living. Once, a person stood there, infuriating or enamoring us with a face alight with anger or sadness or frustration or joy. Once, a person reached out arms to embrace us or threw up hands to ward us off. Once, there was skin to caress, a mouth to kiss, a mind to question. And then, very suddenly, no matter if the person dies at forty-two, as Lia did, or at ninety-eight, as my grandmother did, there is an eerie, silent absence. As if the person had never been there at all.
The body is cremated or buried or donated to science. We stand in an empty room and try to remember how a voice sounded, exactly what a face looked like. Photographs are flawed historians; our memories tilt, filtered. If only we could ask her one more question, touch her cheek one more time, look upon her face just for one more moment. Only absence answers.
The Slims River in the Yukon is gone. I could walk across the entire broad valley from west to east, now. Lia is gone. Her raucous voice, her wild hair, her sacrilegious sense of humor, her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.
Years ago, when I wrote the first drafts of Grief Map, which releases from Brain Mill Press today, I was still desperate to recreate what was gone. I wanted my words to do what reality refused to do: bring back flesh, restore breath. Fiercely, I imagined myself walking that trail west of the Slims again: When I study the mud, I know I might find the overlapping footprints she and I left here in 2005 . . . Here in this air our laughter and our words exist, still. Here are the descendants of the same plants – lupine, penstemon, fireweed — that we flattened with our steps, touched with our fingertips, picked for each other’s hair. Here is the same grove of aspens, grown a little taller, and the same spruce forest . . .
What I did not yet understand was that I am still alive. It is not time for me to sink into the glacial silt and disappear from this world. I have more walking to do. I have other river trails to explore; I have others to love well.
In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes that we can each make a choice about how to live until that inevitable moment when we must “step through the door” of death. She says:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this
In my dreams, I do sometimes walk through a meadow of Alaska cotton on the west shore of the Slims. I do sometimes taste orange Tang and vodka. I do sometimes hear Lia’s infectious laugh. But when I wake, I snuggle close to my wife, Meredith, delight in her soft warm skin, treasure the crazy energy of our ten-year-old daughter and the dog leaping onto our bed. I am here, though the Slims River is gone. I am here, and I do not plan to merely visit this world.
Sarah Hahn Campbell’s book of linked essays, Grief Map, published by Brain Mill Press, releases today in print and ebook, available from sellers and distributors everywhere, and in fine first edition print and ebook directly from Brain Mill Press.